Have you ever been on holiday to a foreign country and realised you learnt more of the language in a week than you ever did at school? The secret ingredient is practice. Having an opportunity to use and be surrounded by the language is a much better learning experience than learning words, grammar and syntax from a book.
The same is true for pretty much anything. No one ever became an Olympian by reading a book about swimming, or became a famous artist by watching a video about painting. Of course, it’s important to understand the theoretical side of what you do, but at some point, you just have to jump in and do it.
This remains a universal truth when it comes to workplace learning and development. The greatest trainer and the best written programmes are only part of the process. The most effective training and sustainable learning recognises that different people learn in different ways, and programmes should include a mix of approaches.
We're going to introduce you to (or refresh you on) three key models and theories in the field of L&D, which help establish the framework for the most engaging and effective learning programmes.
The Learning Cycle
David Kolb, an educational theorist, developed the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT),1 which looks at learning as a series of steps in a cycle. This is a wide-ranging and holistic view of how people learn, and understanding that the best courses or programmes need variety.
The ELT cycle has four steps:
First is what Kolb called ‘Concrete Experience.’ Learning must begin with active involvement, having a tangible experience with it. In an L&D scenario, this could be anything from practical exercises to games or roleplays.
The second step is ‘Reflective Observation,’ where the learner gets an opportunity to take a step back from their task in order to review how it went. This can involve asking questions of themselves and others, getting feedback from peers and group debriefs. Learning journals also help many people, as can having a short break after an activity to process.
Next comes ‘Abstract Conceptualisation,’ where the learner can process and interpret their experiences. It’s important for learners to understand the relationship between what they did, how it went, the feedback they received and what they already knew about the topic. For an L&D programme, this stage is where you would bring in models, facts and theories to frame and contextualise their experiences so far.
The fourth and final step is ‘Active Experimentation,’ where the learner gets to put it all into practice. This means having time to write action plans for how to bring their new learning into their work, or going through real life scenarios to test it within the safety of the classroom or discussion group. The key point is to give them a chance to see how it’s going to be directly useful for them, otherwise they’ll be more likely to forget it all very quickly.
Being a cycle, the next step is for the learner to experience something new and begin the process again.
By going through a process of experiencing, reflecting, understanding and experimenting, learners are much more likely to engage with and internalise their new knowledge or skill.
Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles
Peter Honey and Alan Mumford built upon Kolb’s theories and created a model of four different learning styles.2 It’s important to note that everyone will have a mix of styles and no one fits perfectly into any one category. They wrote these with the aim of helping people get to know themselves better and find learning opportunities and processes that suited them best. It also helps trainers and L&D designers make sure they’ve included something for everyone.
‘Activists’ will jump into new experiences enthusiastically, being open-minded to new ideas, processing the outcomes afterwards. They learn from problem solving and enjoy seeing new things, but at the expense of getting easily bored once the novelty wears off. This means they do best with new concepts but may struggle with longer-term implementation. For learners like these, the best method is to show them something new and keep building on it, anchoring the core idea without it becoming stale. Make sure there are activities, like roleplays and discussions to get stuck into.
In contrast, the ‘Theorists’ are more methodical and logical learners. They like to see how theories fit together and are the most likely to over analyse anything that seems too ambiguous. During a learning programme, make sure you use plenty of models and show the underlying theories. Practical activities will work best when they understand how the principles are being used and adapted for the scenarios.
‘Pragmatists,' as the name suggests, want to learn in order to do. They may have shorter attention spans when it comes to discussions, but only because they’re anxious to put it all into practice. The key is to make examples directly relevant to how they can see it being used. They also benefit from follow-on or in-between work.
The fourth style is the ‘Reflector.’ These are the thinkers of the group, often preferring to observe than volunteer their own experiences or opinions. This isn’t shyness or laziness, but a desire to learn from other people’s contributions before internalising and considering carefully, before speaking up themselves. In a session – particularly a virtual one – it’s important to ensure they’re not overlooked, but also not mistaken as being uninterested. Give them the opportunity to learn from others, and a paired discussion often works well for them. They could also be given the opportunity to summarise or talk about their next steps at the end of a session. Most importantly, they need the opportunity to apply the learning afterwards, so they can assess how it fits into their world.
The 70:20:10 model
70:20:10 is another learning model which helps people designing and delivering training to understand the best way to split up the learning experience.3 Developed by Morgan McCall, Michael M. Lombardo and Robert A. Eichinger, it acts as another piece of the puzzle – once again recognising that different people have different learning preferences, but also states that the majority of learning takes place away from the classroom.
Just as we outlined above, one wouldn’t expect to master any skill without practically applying it, and therefore this model’s name comes from the theory that 70% of learning comes from practical on-the-job experiences, 20% from interactions with others and just 10% from formal education. Once again showing that the initial training session or learning intervention is wasted unless the participant has a chance to follow it up with something more tangible.
Hands-on experience is important as it gives them a chance to put what they’ve learnt to the test, make mistakes, get live feedback, understand it and adapt. The 20% interaction with others shines a spotlight on the importance of speaking to peers about the experience and having coaching or mentoring opportunities. Encouragement, feedback and constructive criticism are all important stages.
Of course, despite its fixed numerical title, this should not be considered a steadfast rule to be followed exactly. It’s a guideline for understanding how learning occurs and a framework for creating the right opportunities. In fact, recent research has called into question the best ratios of the three learning elements and how they interact. Since the model was developed in 1987, the internet has risen to its monolithic status in our society, and generations have moved on and adapted to new modes of working and learning. Therefore, many people argue that social learning has become more important, particularly to Millennials and Generation Z.4 However, it is still agreed that formal learning experiences form the backbone of workplace L&D, it should not be considered the entire process.5
What should be your next steps?
Regardless of the exact breakdown between learning elements, it’s clear learners need a range of experiences and opportunities to apply what they’ve learnt into their day to day work. If no opportunities present themselves naturally, they should be actively sought out.
This all highlights the importance of blended learning programmes. Particularly as many people are now working solitarily at home, it’s crucial that L&D professionals find programmes which encourage social learning and practical application, as well as the virtual classroom.
When designing L&D opportunities and building a programme, you can greatly improve its effectiveness by understanding the learning process, considering different learning styles and building in social and practical learning touchpoints. Establishing these from the beginning means the entire programme can be created with this in mind, rather than retroactively trying to make it work.
1 Simply Psychology (2017) Kolb's Learning Styles and Experiential Learning Cycle
2 University of Leicester (2020) Honey and Mumford
3 Training Industry (2014) The 70-20-10 Model for learning and development
4 LinkedIn Learning (2019) Workplace learning report 2019
5 Training Industry (2018) Testing the modern reality of 70-20-10